Sundance Review: ‘Life Itself’

“(George Orwell) is not a genius -- what a relief! What an encouragement. For he communicates to us the sense that what he has done any one of us could do.” 

– Lionel Trilling, The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent

Premiering at Sundance, “Life itself” was planned as a collaboration between film critic Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz working with director Steve James (”Hoop Dreams”), made to showcase both Ebert’s life and work as he completed a series of treatments for cancer and other medical crises that had already taken away his power of speech and his lower jaw, drawn from his best-selling memoir of the same name. Ebert’s death occurred during production, and the film incorporates the pain of his loss. It isn’t surprising how warm and enjoyable “Life Itself” is – James is a singularly talented documentarian who literally owes his career to Ebert, and Ebert approached the facts of being filmed the same way he faced films, or for that matter faced anything: With honesty and good humor, with principle and understanding, and a joy for the shared darkness of the moviegoing experience matched only by his eloquently harsh dislike for the fools, no-talents and hacks who made films unworthy of the watching.

But “Life Itself” is also sharp and smart and honest, discussing not only Ebert’s disastrous early years of alcoholism and arrogance but also his having, in the words of writer-friend William Nack, “the worst possible taste in women.” The film is honest about the contentious relationship had with Gene Siskel, a relationship as loving – and lovingly unloving – as any bond between real brothers, and how often Ebert’s ego harmed his friends and his life. And Ebert’s wife Chaz tells us other unknown facts and unspoken truths that we’ve not yet heard before, even as old photos and reminisces fill out the things we’ve already known. Editor David E. Simpson, a veteran of other documentaries, helps the film keep in line even as it skips through the days and places of Ebert’s life.

“Life Itself” also functions – accidentally in places – as a great picture of the changes in the culture that came during Ebert’s lifetime, and how his career combined natural gifts, hard work and great timing. Ebert became a film critic in the late ‘60s, at the best imaginable time to write about the changing film landscape for an interested nation; he incorporated TV into his portfolio precisely as TV ascended, regrettably, over Newspapers; when the VHS/Cable revolution meant you could see almost any movie almost an time, his yearly almanacs and books became indispensable guides to the film canon; finally, when film culture moved to the internet, Ebert not only seized on that opportunity but relished it.

Some of these things are discussed, and some of them are not, and who needs minutiae when you have clips from the film made from Ebert’s hilariously mad only-ever screenplay, Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” or clips of Gene Siskel and Ebert busting each other’s chops during the filming of “At the Movies?” The film is narrated in an eerily-perfect Ebert-esque voiceover by Steven Stanton for memoir excerpts from before he lost his power of speech, and, for the memoir excerpts that come from after that loss, e-mails and the artificial voice modulator Ebert was forced to use. But the number one thing that comes through in “Life Itself” is the distinctive, clean voice of his prose, a voice that was both full of love and trained by writing on deadline, expansive as the world of film and concisely shaped and sharpened by the physical constraints and physical nature of newspaper publishing. Ebert’s genius was, as Trilling said of Orwell, that he was not a genius -- his insights and ideas were always articulated simply, strongly and perfectly in the plain-spoken language of newspapers and lobby conversation.

There’s also discussion of Ebert’s professional legacy – specifically if the thumbs-up/thumbs-down took film criticism from sentences to symbols. Jonathan Rosembaum notes on-screen on how consumer advocacy is not film criticism; as a brief digression, let it be noted that what Rosenbaum (and the similarly-dismissive) never seem to get is that while consumer advocacy is not film criticism, there’s no reason criticism can’t include that sense of ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay’ as part of its complex fabric, and that in an era of so many films competing for our time and attention, it very much has to.

At one point prior to Ebert’s death but after his speech-ending surgeries, I was reading the personal, plainspoken and immensely moving essays he wrote for his blog about everything from rice cookers to matters as serious as guns and being able to see the end coming, everything written in that conversational, clean clear voice you could hear in your head even though you’d never actually hear it again. How Ebert wrote in his earlier years became a model for his field; how Ebert wrote in his later years offered a model of how to live. “Life Itself” allows us to watch Ebert go into that final shared darkness we all have to face with a light – and not a thumb – held high to guide us as one his final gift: A graceful, grateful model of how, if we’re as smart as we are lucky, we might one day die.

SCORE: 7.7 / 10